Sign Up

Oh, Say, Can You See the Help Wanted Signs?

What do road signs say about the state of the U.S. economy?

September 4, 2000

What do road signs say about the state of the U.S. economy?

That was certainly our experience during our summer vacation. Driving a circuit from Washington, D.C., up to the Great Lakes and back to down Washington via the New York Finger Lakes and rural Pennsylvania. Everywhere we went, we witnessed America’s businesses, large and small, saying just about anything to attract potential workers — including using roadside signs.

During the late 1920s through the early 1960s, the makers of Burma Shave entertained travelers on America’s roads with slogans of homespun wisdom and wit. Spaced a mile or so apart, each sign conveyed a fragment of the larger slogan. In 1933, one set of signs read:

The answer to
A maiden’s
Is not a chin
Of stubby hair

Pass by any business establishment and you’ll see a similarly upbeat appeal to “Join our team!” — or an allurement like “Want to earn extra bucks?” Since the middle of 1997, the U.S. unemployment rate has been stuck below 5.0% — and companies are resorting to quaint Burma Shave-type inducements to attract employees. Go to McDonald’s and you’re just as likely to get a job application with your Happy Meal as this week’s kiddy toy.

Burger King has even invented a new twist on job sharing: stay-at-home mothers can work while their kids are in school and then hand off their jobs to their teenagers after school. Yesterday’s lowly hamburger cook now receives paid vacation and insurance. Who could pass up such enticements?

From sea to shining sea, America’s cry for workers goes well beyond the McJobs the Europeans sniff at. In America’s technology centers, virtually every high tech firm has roadside billboards extolling the virtues of working for this or that firm — better pay, better benefits, more time off, on-site recreation and exercise rooms. You name it, employers want to give it to prospective workers.

The list of job openings at Cisco Systems — the San Francisco-based manufacturer of the hardware that runs the Internet — is nearly 500 pages long and growing. Even as the companies create new jobs, old vacancies go unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. Silicon Valley’s top executives are picking up thousands of frequent flyer miles by making the pilgrimage to Washington to lobby the U.S. Congress to let more smart foreigners into the country to work.

No one knows how long this job bounty will last. But until it ends, you shouldn’t be surprised if the next time you order a burger at McDonald’s, the kid behind the counter doesn’t ask if you’d “like fries with that” — and asks instead if you would like a job.